Healthy Boundaries

Find healthy boundaries in your work, life and love

“You need boundaries … Even in our material creations, boundaries mark the most beautiful of places, between the ocean and the shore, between the mountains and the plains, where the canyon meets the river.” ― Wm Paul Young

Setting appropriate boundaries in all key areas of your life is essential not only to your health and wellbeing, but to your self-esteem, too. Boundaries signify a limit or an endpoint for what you will tolerate or accept. They provide an emotional blueprint for how you let other people treat you. If we do not respect ourselves, we often struggle with boundaries and this may result in feeling as though we have been “used” or taken advantage of.

Boundaries in a relationship signify where one person starts and the other person ends. They allow each person to identify as a unique individual with their own set of goals and desires. Boundaries provide the space for both individuals to voice their opinions and make their own decisions. “Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices,” the wise poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once said.

Examples of where boundaries are lacking in a relationship include: being told by another person how to think, feel or act; not knowing how to separate your feelings from those of your spouse or partner and taking on their emotional state; as well as blaming others for your problems or accepting the blame for someone else. In some relationships or situations, it is obvious when a boundary has been crossed but there can also be subtle indications that something isn’t quite right. These may include feeling anxious or uncomfortable, or that you are not being listened to or given a choice.

What are boundaries for?

Poor boundaries lead to burnout and resentment, while healthy boundaries give you permission to be more assertive. By establishing healthy boundaries, you gain respect, your confidence grows and you feel empowered to stand on your own two feet. The consequences of not having boundaries in place can include stress, relationship issues, financial burdens and limitations on our time. 

Who should we set boundaries with?

The people in your life that cause you the most anguish or confusion are usually the people who know how to “push your buttons”. These are often relationships in which we don’t have clear boundaries established.
Boundaries in love

Healthy boundaries are essential to healthy relationships. They allow both partners to maintain a sense of self and enable self-worth to flourish. They ensure one partner does not dominate or have control over the other. Both partners should be able to function on their own, as well as together.

An important time to establish clear boundaries is following a relationship breakdown. To go from being in a partnership to needing to relate to each other in a very different dynamic can be difficult to navigate. Old habits and dysfunctional communication methods that existed in the relationship can continue, causing anguish and resentment. It is important to set new ground rules for communication moving forward, especially if you have children together or wish to remain friends.

Healthy boundaries are essential to healthy relationships. They allow both partners to maintain a sense of self and enable self-worth to flourish.

Boundaries with children

It is well established that children need boundaries. Boundaries around screen time, completion of chores and bedtime routines are important, however do we give enough thought to the emotional boundaries between our children and ourselves? Are you constantly accessible to your children, allowing no or little downtime? Do you find yourself intervening and fixing their mistakes? Is there a clear line between where you end and your child begins? Many of us want to give our “all” to our children, but this can sometimes come at our own expense.

Children need emotional boundaries to build resilience and independence. Guiding and supporting our children is essential, however we need to give them the space to make mistakes, work things out for themselves and learn to self-soothe. We need to provide a loving presence but remain separate from our children in order for them to develop into self-sufficient, independent adults.

Boundaries with family

Family members are infamous for boundary battles and family dynamics can be difficult to manage. Family members are entitled to their own opinion, however they are not entitled to force their opinion on you. Remember it’s your life and the key is to be kind but firm. Be prepared to compromise as long as you aren’t compromising on your values.

Other important boundaries

Boundaries are not only required for your intimate relationships. Establishing healthy boundaries in the workplace is extremely important to your wellbeing. Starting early, working through lunch and getting home late means you are not taking care of your own needs. Taking on extra work when you are already swamped or agreeing to impossible deadlines from demanding, unreasonable clients are all situations in which boundaries would be of great benefit. Healthy boundaries between a boss or leader and his or her subordinates are essential to a positive workplace dynamic. Taking advantage of employees or treating them with a lack of respect can result in an unhealthy work environment and disenchanted staff, and can have further implications on the mental and physical health of individuals within the organisation.

We often struggle with demands on our time, both at work and in day-to day life. We can find ourselves saying “yes” to requests that we simply don’t have the time or energy for. Saying “yes” can sometimes feel like an easier option than saying “no” and having to deal with the fallout. We may fear disappointing the person asking for our assistance, or we don’t want to deal with the guilt we attach to putting our own needs first. But saying “yes” when we want to say “no” builds resentment.

Does there always have to be fallout from saying “no”? According to author and research professor Brené Brown, setting boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others: “Only when we believe, deep down, that we are enough can we say ‘Enough!’”

Healthy internal boundaries allow you to manage your negative self-talk and self-criticism. This has a flow-on effect of building your self-esteem and assists you in dealing with criticism or negative comments from others without letting it derail you.

Internal boundaries

Internal boundaries are about your relationship with yourself and involve self-respect and self-awareness. Healthy internal boundaries allow you to manage your negative self-talk and self-criticism. This has a flow-on effect of building your self-esteem and assists you in dealing with criticism or negative comments from others without letting it derail you. Healthy internal boundaries also provide you with the courage to stand up for yourself and respectfully disagree.

Internal boundaries assist you in achieving your goals by remaining focused and committed and not giving in to distractions. Respecting your body by eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep and engaging in self-care is not always possible if internal boundaries do not exist. A lack of internal boundaries can lead to poor time management, unhealthy behaviour and a lack of self-respect.

How to set boundaries

As with every area of self-development, change starts with awareness. Setting boundaries for yourself can give you a template or guideline to work from so you have already established what you can and can’t or will and won’t take on. If your boundaries are aligned with your core values, you are coming from a place of strength and certainty when you respond to requests. You may wish to consider values such as honesty, loyalty, commitment and respect.

The next step in setting boundaries is to reflect on the boundaries that already exist in your life. In which relationships do you have established boundaries and with which people are they lacking? Which of your relationships are relatively free from conflict and with whom do you feel a shared and natural connection? Which relationships cause you the most stress and anguish and why? In respect to internal boundaries, what has worked for you in the past and what barriers can you identify and remove in order to succeed?

Next, it’s important to consider what you want from each relationship or situation. And what you will no longer tolerate. Think about situations when you weren’t happy with the outcome or how you were treated at the time. How would you like to handle a situation like this in the future and what could the other person do to make you feel at ease and respected? It may help to write these down. Consider such statements as, “Please don’t tease me about … or call me …” “Please don’t … as it makes me feel…” “Thank you for the invitation but I unfortunately can’t make it/can’t help on this occasion.”

Honesty is important, both with yourself and with others. If you are not clear on what your boundaries are, then how can you ask others to respect them? Brown reminds us that self-worth is an important factor when setting boundaries: “We can’t ask people to give us something that we don’t believe we are worthy of receiving.” Believe in yourself, respect yourself and know that you are worthy of respect from others.

How to communicate your boundaries to others

Before communicating your boundaries to the people in your life, it is important to think about what has prevented you from asserting these boundaries in the past. Is it a lack of confidence? Is it because you were tired, and it was easier to say “yes”? Is it because you have grown used to being treated in a certain way, even though it makes you feel uncomfortable or resentful?

We need to have the courage to voice how we are feeling. We all deserve to be treated with respect and we have the right to state what is acceptable to us and what isn’t. The next time you are asked to do something you are not interested in or don’t have the time for, politely but firmly decline without feeling the need to over-explain.

The most effective way to ensure boundaries are respected is to set consequences. They must be consequences you are prepared to stand by and enforce.

It is never too late to set boundaries, even in an already long-term friendship or relationship. It may take the other person some time to get used to the new terms of the relationship and they may push back initially, however if you persist, it will improve over time. The biggest challenge is when the other person is not able or willing to accept your position and change their behaviour. You must stay strong and continue to assert your position.

Don’t expect it to be easy. Change is always a challenge and you may initially feel uncomfortable or be told by the other person in the relationship that you are being selfish or demanding. Stay true to yourself. If you have connected with your core values, set your boundaries for the right reasons, and respected and considered the other person, you should have the confidence to stand firm. If no progress can be made with a certain person, it may be time to dissolve the relationship.

Walk the talk

You can’t expect to be treated with respect if you are not treating other people in your life in the same manner. Lead by example and demonstrate your values through your behaviour and actions.

How to keep boundaries in place

It is easy to blur the lines in some relationships and boundaries can slowly erode over time. The most effective way to ensure boundaries remain firmly in place is to remain consistent and to revisit your objectives on a regular basis.

Seek support

If you are having trouble communicating or enforcing your new boundaries, it may help to seek the support of a trusted friend or consider professional advice. Psychologists or counsellors can assist in all steps of the process and life coaches are often experienced in boundary setting. You may also like to seek guidance from books, articles or online resources on the subject.

Once your boundaries are clearly established, you will have a blueprint to follow and are less likely to make rash, emotional decisions. If your boundaries are defined by your values, you will be driven by your principles. Lead by example; be consistent and firm. Approach the practice of establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries as an act of self-care. Your health and wellbeing will flourish in many areas of your life as a result.

Emma Nuttall

Emma Nuttall

Emma Nuttall is a nutritionist (BHSc) and freelance writer. She combines evidence-based nutritional medicine with mindset strategies to support her clients in achieving their goals. You can find more about Emma here

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